Following the success of Cover the Mirrors (2007), Trades of the Flesh is the second offering from North West novelist Faye L. Booth and concerns the fall and rise of pauper Lydia Ketch who turns to prostitution and begins to use the lucrative and exploitative trade to her own advantage, effecting her escape from a self-destructive underclass. Her way out comes initially in the form of Henry Shadwell, a young surgeon, who Lydia happens across whilst plying her trade in The Old Bull. Little by little Lydia is drawn into Henry’s world of amateur pornography and, more alarmingly, grave robbery.
Writing historical fiction is always a difficult task and it is a skilful author that can make the reader believe they are seeing into a much older world without having to shoehorn in the clichés of the time (to create the 1970s, for example, all you need are Space Hoppers, kipper ties, Smash, Clangers, tank-tops, flares and three day weeks). The problem is that we want to have our cake and eat it with historical fiction. We want characters to have similar concerns to ours, but also be different enough to seem as though they belong to a bygone age. In the same way there are always complaints that the characters in BBC costume dramas seem ‘too modern’, we are hyper-sensitive to anachronisms of behaviour and speech mannerisms in prose that can burst the bubble of plausibility. There is also the problem that as readers we have so many preconceptions about particular historical periods that the writer, in creating an authentic past world, has to walk a fine line between tapping into those ideas we already hold and challenging them.
For the most part Booth deals with these issues deftly. Despite the dark and often tragic events, the story is told with gallows humour, the characters are engaging and familiar without being stereotypes, and there are some weird and wonderful originals – like the beggar who tries to trick Lydia and Mary into thinking he is diseased by making weeping scabs out of soap and pigs’ blood and the strange bunch of trainee surgeons Henry instructs using his purloined corpses.
But although the novel is clearly well researched (Booth admits to walking the streets of Preston - so to speak - and scrutinising old maps to understand how the city might have looked and felt in the nineteenth century), I found myself wanting this dark Preston to be rendered a little more tangibly. Though this may have been because I am a native Prestonian and I wanted from the novel the same pleasurably disorientating sense of familiarity and otherness I feel when I look at old photographs of a city I know well. Booth has simply chosen subtlety when it comes to describing place, making the characters and their lives the focus. Lydia’s world is, in fact, fairly small – her employment restricting her to the main thoroughfares of Friargate and Fishergate.
Lydia and Henry’s lusty exploits would not look out of place in Onan and The Gentlemen’s Review, but there is more to this novel than just trashy erotica. It is about female empowerment as much as it is about sexual liberation. While many of the men come across as either violent, arrogant or with sexual tastes way beyond weird (see the man who is aroused by girls pretending they are consumptive) women, on the other hand, are nearly all strong willed and intelligent. Kathleen Tanner who owns the brothel where Lydia works and Mrs Bell, her landlady later in the novel, though worlds apart, both run successful businesses. Lydia teaches herself to read and write well enough to publish a ‘gentlemen’s’ paper of her own – The White Flowers Reader - and as a result of her business acumen is eventually able to move out of the ‘introductions house’. She outgrows the need for Henry’s financial assistance and becomes truly independent.
The corset on the book cover will probably mean that Trades of the Flesh is stacked on the shelves in Waterstones with the Black Lace Quickies and bondage anthologies, but don’t be shy, go over, take it away from all that and put it with the literature.